Bill looks to protect local fishermen

By Max Sullivan / msullivan@seacoastonline.com

Posted Feb 1, 2015 at 2:01 AM

While New Hampshire fishermen are struggling with federal regulations in the Gulf of Maine, state legislators are trying to give them a break with local regulations on how they store their gear at home.

House Bill 464, filed by Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, would establish the Fishing Family Protection Act, prohibiting political subdivisions from interfering with commercial and recreational operations of fishing families. Cushing said the bill requires communities to recognize fishing as a “home occupation,” much like the case of an independent plumber who stores his equipment in his home.

″(A fishing family is) not like Red Lobster operating in a commercial zone,” Cushing said. “It’s a guy who is storing traps in the back yard because his workplace is on the ocean.”

State Sens. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, and Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, are among sponsors and co-sponsors.

Cushing believes the bill is a step toward better preservation of an industry that has been a staple to New England for hundreds of years. He said fishing families living on the coastline in New Hampshire have been there for generations.

But the modernization of the coastline and the real estate industry has changed the way the coastline is viewed, Cushing said. Property is often bought for the ocean view today, not for practicality.

“The old fishing houses that used to dot the coast line ... many of them now have McMansions on them where fishing traps used to be,” Cushing said.

And that, he added, has led to clashes between fishermen and their neighbors. He said fishermen have faced complaints about how much space the fishing equipment takes up and what it smells like.

Cushing cited an incident from 1997 that involved a fisherman, Peter Walker, who moved from Portsmouth to avoid dealing with fines from the city and a neighbor complaining about how he stored lobster traps.

Walker received a notice from the city in March 1997 saying he would need to remove his 1,200 lobster traps from his Coolidge Drive property in Elwyn Park by a certain date or face a $100-a-day fine, according to a Portsmouth Herald article.

Linda Walker, Peter’s mother who lives with Peter and his wife in Rye, said the issue began when an elderly woman complained about the storage of the traps.

“The elderly lady that lived next door didn’t like it,” Linda Walker said. “Rather than taking on an uphill battle, he just sold his place.”

Cushing said Walker’s incident helped fuel his interest. He filed a similar bill to HB 464 in 1998, but the bill wasn’t voted in. He said he couldn’t find support because people seemed to think the state shouldn’t be involved with a local zoning issue at the time, especially one that was only immediately relevant to about 13 miles of coastline.

“People weren’t conscious of the importance of the fishing industry,” Cushing said. “I just didn’t find much support.”

But circumstances are different now, Cushing said. The fishing industry is on a downward spiral as it deals with federal regulations. The regulations, he said, have caused “a lot more concern” across New Hampshire.

Commercial fisherman Josh Belisle of Hampton Falls said he hopes HB 464 passes and added that he dealt with a similar situation to Walker’s on his Coach Lane property. A neighbor, Belisle said, complained that he should not be able to keep his commercial fishing gear of lobster traps and boats on his residential property.

Belisle said he ignored the town when it called him to go before the selectmen to discuss the issue, but some of his fellow fishermen went in his stead, facing the same problem.

The fishermen won in Hampton Falls, Belisle said. His 28-foot boat is sitting in his driveway right now, he said, and his lobster traps are still there.

“If you have a step ladder on a truck, if you have a Comcast truck, if you have a cop car, anything, those are commercial business (tools and accessories),” Belisle said. “If you can’t (store lobster traps and boats on your property) then everybody’s got to get a commercial lot.”

Belisle said tradesmen’s right to store tools how they see fit on their property is important in New Hampshire, associating restrictions on fishermen in a residential zone as being disrespectful toward the tradition of New England fishing.

“I think it’s one of those things that’s going to keep us a real country,” Belisle said of the bill. “It’s what represents a real New Hampshire resident, to be able to do something that was started 100 ago years or more, to keep their tradition going.

Jane Ferrini, staff attorney of the city of Portsmouth, said the city is not going to take any position on the bill as of now, but will take it to its legislative subcommittee, which meets quarterly with legislative delegates on issues involving the city.

Andrew Gorrill